Room 237 is the first great comedy about film criticism. Or maybe it’s the first great horror-comedy. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.
Rodney Ascher’s obsessive exploration of a collection of obsessive interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is full of wit and knowledge, sharply executed and deliriously insightful into the ways we process images and construct meaning in movies. Ascher never makes fun of his entertaining collection of crackpots, but his commitment to them and their analyses is complete. Frame-by-frame, backwards and forwards, the film is deconstructed; a German typewriter equals a Holocaust subtext, a missing chair from one shot to the next is not the result of a standard continuity screw up but a sign of Kubrick’s brilliant parody of low-budget horror filmmaking. Ascher lets these analyses proceed to their gloriously ridiculous ends.
These (mostly) silly conspiracies are not being articulated by professional film critics, clearly. But to a filmmaker (like me), a person attuned to the means of producing a film, where chaos reigns and meaning is often stumbled upon, even by the most control-freakish of directors, this type of over-interpretation is painfully hilarious. Because Ascher knows exactly what he’s doing, Room 237 is a cringe-worthy comedy of the highest order.
Never has a filmmaker attempted a movie so completely about the mental process of film critique. These characters are not "proper" film critics. But their obsessive readings can be seen as a metaphor for all film analysis. That burning need to scrutinize—to interpret and explain—is the soul of even the most sophisticated criticism. What Room 237 does is take that internal desire to understand and transforms it into a raging, slobbering, terribly funny movie monster.
I watched it with hands over mouth, openly terrified of this new screen villain, the id critic. Sometime around the Apollo 11 sweater reveal, I let down my guard and enjoyed the sidesplitting humor for what it was. But that initial feeling of terror was real, coming straight from my filmmaker-brain, where subtlety is life force and dumb symbolism is the destroyer of truth, or something like that. This type of deep-in-the-mud meaning excavation was something like a nightmare, tapping into my worst fears about the movie creation/interpretation process.
The film seems to have touched a nerve with critics, too. In a ranting blog entry after seeing the film at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival, Jonathan Rosenbaum blasted Room 237 as “reprehensible” because Ascher “refuses to make any distinctions between interpretations that are semi-plausible or psychotic, conceivable or ridiculous, implying that they’re all just ‘film criticism’ and because everyone is a film critic nowadays, they all deserve to be treated with equal amounts of respect and/or mockery.” I understand the sensitivity, JRo. Meanwhile, from apparently the same screening, critic Girish Shambu called the film “a disturbing representation of the practice of film criticism.”
Clearly, a least a few critics were as disturbed by the id critic movie monster as me. Are they being forced to recognize the monster inside?
“I think any critic who doesn't see themselves reflected in Room 237's obsessives is either lying or in denial (although I just wrote a piece on circular motifs in The Hudsucker Proxy, so I may be projecting),” said critic Sam Adams. “Of course I recognize the monster within,” added former AV Club editor, Scott Tobias, “I don't think we're conspiracy theorists by nature, but you don't do this for a living (or a habit) without sharing some of [the] mad obsession of Room 237's subjects. There are always going to be times when a sensible critic might not seem far removed from the film's subjects, when the “monster within” is revealed.”
All interpretation has the potential to become over-interpretation and Room 237, at its core, is a portrait of the mind of the interpreter. Ascher isn’t interested in film criticism, per se, but by brilliantly refusing to question the outlandish theories on display (such as The Shining being Kubrick’s coded confession to his wife for staging the moon landing), he’s implicitly created what can be seen as a high parody of film critique.
A filmmaker creates a film, often by any means necessary and often at the expense of his/her sanity. Said film has “meaning” inasmuch as it presents a set of ideas as a work of art. This film then makes its way into the world, where it is confronted first by a hoard of well-versed gatekeepers, who (often as a means of employment, but not always) dissect it, sometimes in blurbs, sometimes in long essays, creating personal “takes” on the work. This process (even when amazingly rewarding to the writer) can be excruciating to a person who makes movies.
“I'm sympathetic to your frustrations as a filmmaker, Robert, but your perspective is irrelevant to this kind of inquiry,” said friend and critic Eric Hynes when I asked him to comment. “There's a reason that this obsessive mentality gravitates towards reclusive, mysterious, or dead artists—there's room, there's an invitation even, for audience participation and conjecture. But even for less opaque films and filmmakers, once you're done with it, it belongs to the world. Intent matters, of course, but you can't control whether anyone gets it or gets you.”
This did not make me feel better.
Room 237 is like an act of revenge from a filmmaker upon the critics. If Ascher had made other features and gone through the normal ups and downs with critics, I could almost stage my own Room 237 about his Room 237 to prove correct this revenge hypothesis. As it stands, the film is blisteringly funny and provocative in the way it opens up the hidden wounds and secret tensions between filmmaking and film reviewing. Do critics understand that Room 237, as horror-comedy, might be destroying the delicate balance of filmmaker-film critic relations?
“One definition of ‘film criticism’ would be the translation of an extremely personal reaction into terms that seem objectively reasonable,” says critic Vadim Rizov.
“So sure, I ‘see myself,’ (in the characters in Room 237) but good/great criticism doesn't have to be reasonable; it just has to have an argument that illuminates something about the film, even if I disagree totally.”
Sensible enough. Maybe Ascher hasn’t destroyed the universe. “I took the Sontag phrase "Against Interpretation" very much to heart,” says critic Glenn Kenny, reassuringly. “I don't think that a work of art is defined via decoding its supposed symbolism. What the filmmaker cannot correctly gauge, in the final analysis, is what the movie looks like to someone who DIDN'T make it. This can be valuable to the filmmaker, or not. I don't want to get too dogmatic about it.”
“As a critic,” adds Tobias, “I'm cautious about proposing grand unifying themes like the ones expressed in Room 237, because it encourages a kind of myopia that limits your understanding of a work. Kubrick certainly programmed meaning into his work, but once a film is released, I believe firmly that it belongs to the viewer and that not all meanings are intentional.”
This is the important point. To the filmmaker brain, Room 237 illustrates violently and hilariously the degree to which the filmmaker really doesn’t matter once the film is done. So maybe the id critic isn’t the movie monster here. Maybe it’s my own fears manifested at which I’m nervously cackling.
But when it comes down to it, Room 237 is, in fact, a celebration of movie creating and watching. “Room 237 offers examples of (I guess) 'bad' film criticism, but the cranky fanaticism on display can illuminate potentially unexplored corners,” says Rizov.
“Though there's clearly something monstrous about the perversions of interpretation on display, I also feel a kind of exhilaration as the theories unfold,” says Hynes, “the 'let's see what I can see when I see things obsessively' impulse is less monstrous than essential to all endeavoring to reach greater understanding.”
“The implicit argument the movie makes,” adds Kenny, “is that the interpretations have value as fantastic stories of their own, that they construct a Borgesian library of imaginative "knowledge" which is of value.”
Okay fine. Room 237 is not a comedy about film criticism. But it is damn funny that we all keep doing this.